Water crisis: USA- Stanislaus county’s unincorporated areas face harsh realities.

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Originally Posted Saturday,
Apr. 07, 2012
By Bernice Yeung

California Watch
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[/one_fifth] [four_fifth_last] Save the Water

Water crisis

Stanislaus County’s unincorporated areas face harsh realities

By Bernice Yeung / California Watch
Nearly every day, Modesto Junior College student Arleen Hernandez battles an aging septic tank that backs up into her toilet and shower, bringing with it “bits of paper and chunks of mold.”

Hernandez has learned to take quick showers and work swiftly with a mop. She has also tried to fix a leaking toilet herself, but her home repair skills have been no match for an outdated system with clogged pipes.

When Hernandez’s parents moved to Parklawn in 1986, they didn’t realize the extent to which this island of county land within Modesto lacks basic public services.

Modesto Bee – DARRYL BUSH/dbush@modbee.com – Children return to their homes from school on Watson Ave. in the Parklawn neighborhood, in Modesto, Calif., Wednesday, April 4, 2012.
  • Money for sewer service in Modesto neighborhoods just isn’t there
  • PDF: Modesto’s Islands
  • California Watch
  • Parklawn is not connected to nearby city sewer lines, so Hernandez and her neighbors flush their sewage into overloaded septic tanks. There is only one short strip of sidewalk along the southern edge of the community and not enough storm drains. During heavy rains, children dodge traffic in flooded streets on their way to school.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and when you’re a child, you don’t think it’s something big,” said Hernandez. “But as you grow older, you start realizing that it doesn’t seem fair that people have basic needs met and you skip one community.”

Across California, there are hundreds of neighborhoods like Parklawn. These poor, dense and unincorporated communities on county land — which uniformly lack some combination of sewer systems, clean drinking water, sidewalks, streetlights and storm drains — have been the victim of years of government neglect.

In the eastern Coachella Valley, residents in mobile home parks pipe sewage into aging septic tanks and cesspools. In Lanare, a community near Fresno, arsenic taints the tap water.

“It’s like people are living in colonies of the United States,” said Miguel Donoso, a longtime Latino community advocate in Stanislaus County. “Living in a Third World country, that’s close to what you see here today.”

In Modesto alone, about 14,000 people live in 27 disenfranchised islands — all just a quick drive from the city’s busy downtown and $55 million Gallo Center for the Arts. Ceres and Turlock add at least 10 more.

Statewide, PolicyLink, an Oakland-based public policy research and advocacy institute, estimates that 1.8 million low-income and often Spanish-speaking Californians live in unincorporated communities, many without the infrastructure that would curb gastrointestinal illnesses, respiratory disease symptoms, and other public health and safety risks.

In Parklawn and similar unincorporated communities, language barriers, legal status and a lack of political know-how have made it difficult for residents to navigate the governmental process.

“You’re looking at very small communities that are impoverished, and in many cases, (residents are) undocumented, and that puts them at a severe disadvantage,” said Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno. “There are very few people who want to take on these communities as a priority.”


No sewer connections


Money and jurisdiction often stand in the way of progress. Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who represents Parklawn, said that in Modesto, city residents must first approve a ballot measure to provide sewer service to an unincorporated community, and then the county would have to forge a service agreement with the city. But the biggest challenge is “the cost of doing it — having to go in and completely retrofit these 50-year-old subdivisions to modern standards,” DeMartini said.

Since 1996, the county has spent $23.7 million on improvements to six unincorporated areas in Modesto, including $296,830 for Parklawn, according to county records.

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